Quarterly Updates for (16 Nov 2016 — 15 Feb 2017)

Even before U.S. pres. Trump took office on 1/20, his allies in Israel and the U.S. Congress were preparing for a major shift in U.S. policy on Iran, threatening to upend the fragile rapprochement established as a result of the P5+1’s (China, France, Russia, the UK, U.S., and Germany) 7/14/2015 nuclear deal with Iran (see JPS 45 [1]).

The U.S. Senate voted (12/1) unanimously to extend the Iran Sanctions Act for 10 years, sending the legislation to then Pres. Obama for his approval. Supporters of the move argued that this preserved U.S. ability to restore sanctions should Iran violate the 7/14 deal, although the Obama admin. found (12/1) that it was “not necessary.” Iranian pres. Hassan Rouhani forced the issue, however, saying Iran would (12/4)“firmly respond” if Obama did not veto the bill. In a procedural protest, Obama opted not to sign the bill, allowing it to become law (12/15). According to Russian and Iranian officials, Iran backed down after meeting (1/10) with reps. of the P5+1.

As Obama defended his signature foreign policy achievement, uncertainties grew over his successor’s position on Iran. On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly pledged to cancel the 7/14 deal in favor of a more aggressive posture toward Iran, but it was unclear if his allies concurred. The week after the election, a senior Israeli official said (11/ 17) that Israeli PM Netanyahu was working on a plan to expand U.S. sanctions against Iran. Netanyahu did not intend to push for the 7/14 deal to be scrapped, the official said, explaining that “the PM will argue, first and foremost, that the U.S. should work to diminish the partnership between Russia and Iran in the [Middle East].” Netanyahu himself told (12/11) 60 Minutes that he planned to suggest “various ways” that Trump could undo the agreement.

It was also unclear whether the incoming pres. could actually undo the deal. As Iran’s FM Mohammad Javad Zarif noted on 1/19, “It’s an international agreement,” meaning that the U.S. alone could not cancel it. Zarif also said, “We believe it’s in the interest of everybody to stick to the deal.” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini concurred (1/16), saying that the EU planned to stand by the deal regardless of Trump’s actions.

Trump gave supporters of the deal a boost when he asked Treasury Undersecy. Adam Szubin to stay on in his admin. to “ensure the continuity of the govt.,” according to incoming press secy. Spicer (1/19). Szubin was among high-ranking officials involved in the negotiations that led to the deal, and his continued tenure was interpreted as signaling that Trump intended to build his Iran policy around the deal instead of in place of it. The incoming pres. reinforced the impression when he pledged to “rigorously” enforce the deal in a phone call with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz on 1/29.

Meanwhile, the Iranian govt. conducted (1/29) an unsuccessful medium-range missile test. Although it had conducted several similar tests since the 7/14 deal, the Western press speculated that Iran was perhaps testing the waters of the new Trump era. In an attempt to halt the speculation, Iranian DM Hossein Dehghan declared (2/1) that the 1/29 operation “was in line with our ongoing [missile testing] program,” adding that Iran would continue carrying out planned production of “defense items meant for our national interests and objectives.” However, incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn said (2/1) that the U.S. would take “appropriate action” against Iranian efforts to “threaten U.S. friends and allies,” and Trump himself tweeted (2/2): “Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile. Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!” The Treasury Dept. then imposed (2/3) sanctions on 13 Iranian individuals and 12 entities allegedly involved in Iran’s missile program, and a Trump admin. official said (2/3) that more steps were to come. In response, Iran’s Foreign Ministry threatened (2/3) reciprocal actions in the form of “legal limitations for some American individuals and companies that have had a role in the creation and support of extreme terrorist groups in the region.”

As the quarter came to a close, the Trump admin.’s Iran plans remained unclear. Some admin. officials as well as congressional Republicans said the 7/14 deal would be upheld, but tensions ratcheted up when Iran test-fired (2/8) another a short-range Mersad missile. White House officials issued a statement indicating (2/8) that Trump was considering placing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps on the list of designated foreign terror organizations, but there was nothing more on the matter by 2/15 at the quarter’s close.